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Posts Tagged ‘Night of the Demon’

Being disagreeably blocked at the moment, I thought I would share with you my thoughts on a couple of exploitation movies I caught by accident this week (I did intend to see Machete but it’s not showing in Oxford, dammit).

 

The reputation of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) as a cult movie of the first rank was probably sealed when it was referenced in the opening lyrics of The Rocky Horror Picture Show – having its dialogue sampled by Kate Bush for the title track of the classic album Hounds of Love probably didn’t do it any harm, either. Having said all that this seems to be one of those famous cult classics that no-one’s actually seen and which isn’t on TV that much. I caught it almost by accident at the weekend, showing in the middle of the night, and was nearly falling asleep by the end (one of the advantages of being single with no social life to speak of is that you can get away with this sort of thing).

Based (rather loosely, one suspects) on one of Montague Rhodes James’ famous ghost stories, this is the tale of Holden (Dana Andrews), a very sceptical American parapsychologist who arrives in England and finds himself drawn into investigating a Satanic cult headed by the creepily jovial Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis). The last man to do so died in an strange accident, and Holden himself finds he’s apparently suffering from hallucinations and surrounded by odd events – were the dead man’s suspicions that he was being stalked by a fire-demon from Hell true, and is the being now on Holden’s trail?

Well, it’s a bit of a minor miracle that Night of the Demon is as good as it is (which is to say, notably so), given that the producer, Hal Chester, unintentionally did his very best to make it risible rather than scary. Even watching this film without prior knowledge, it’s very clear that Tourneur intended to leave open the question of whether the demon and Karswell’s powers are real, and suggest rather than show the supernatural elements. The sequences where the demon actually appears, which were inserted by Chester against Tourneur’s will, are incongruous. The monster itself isn’t that bad for the 50s, but it seems to have wandered in out of a different kind of film. The grammar of monster movies is spectacularly broken with as the beast puts in a full appearance very, very early on.

The rest of the film, though, is well enough made for it to recover from this. The obvious thing to compare it to is, I would suggest, Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out from a decade later, but where that film is lurid and fantastical and really succeeds only because Christopher Lee and Charles Gray have tremendous charisma and play it all absolutely straight, Night of the Demon is absolutely restrained and down to earth, with the main character stubbornly looking for a rational explanation all the way through.

It’s a sign of the era this film was made in that simply being a Satanist is enough to qualify Karswell as the villain. It’s not as if he appears to have any master plan or particular ambition beyond running his cult and going about his own business. Karswell actually comes across as quite a decent chap, not really malevolent at all, and McGinnis is rather more likeable than Andrews. Nevertheless, morality is morality and one never truly believes that the powers of darkness will triumph. The path the movie takes to the point where they are eventually vanquished is an interesting one and the journey is completed in some style. This is a movie deserving of its reputation and a reminder that the British horror movie did not begin with Hammer.

With rather less of a reputation – and, in fact, so obscure it doesn’t even qualify for its own Wikipedia entry, which is saying something these days – is Wilderness Survival for Girls (2004), an exploitation movie written and directed by Eli Despres and Kim Roberts, whose other works include Autism: The Musical and Local Mechanic Wins Millions (no, me neither). The stock of this film has sunk so low that it’s legally available to view for free over the internet. Yes, I know, but it’s cold outside and like I said, I’m blocked.

In time-honoured (and slightly formulaic) style, this is the tale of three girls in their late teens who drive up to the mountains to stay in a remote cabin. One of them is a dweeb, one of them is a rebel, and one of them is nice. That night the spooky tale is told of how, some years earlier, another young girl was murdered in this area, and the killer never caught… but hang on a minute – who does all this stuff upstairs in the cupboard belong to? And is that the sound of someone creeping around the outside of the cabin they can hear?

This isn’t actually a slasher movie, as it’s rather more psychological than that – in a commendably brave move, the directors never quite make it clear whether the girls (Ali Humiston, Jeanette Brox and Megan Henning) are actually in serious danger from the intruder (James Morrison), or if drugs and alcohol are just causing a horrific over-reaction to a simple case of squatting. Morality here is rather more obscure than in Night of the Demon.

While the scenario sounds formulaic and the whole movie has clearly been made on a budget less than the catering crew of Avatar spend on their manicures in a typical month, this is actually a quite solid and interesting film that doesn’t feel the need to outstay its welcome (it’s very much on the brief side). The girls are written with wit and intelligence and performed with conviction and I’m not surprised that they’ve gone on to do okay for themselves. All the way through it I was thinking ‘Well, she’s giving the best performance of the three… no, hang on, it’s her… wait a minute, it’s the other one.’ Honours even at the end, I would say.

This being an exploitation movie revolving around a degree of fem. jeop., the script is obliged to include a few elements not found in more rarefied cinematic realms. Yes, the girls start taking their clothes off well before the ten-minute mark is reached, and later on there is a bi-curious interlude between two of them. As I’ve implied, these scenes seem to be here for form’s sake more than anything else. They’re certainly not lingered on (yes, I was biting back my disappointment), and for the most part they don’t seem too illogical or intrusive. The plot itself hangs together quite well, although it goes round in a bit of a circle in the middle, and does increasingly rely on a character who started out as believably kind-hearted and easy-going transforming into a gullible moron.

All this said I’m not entirely surprised that this film is as obscure as it is – the low budget shows in the extremely limited locations and tiny cast (four speaking parts), and while it is competently made it doesn’t really bring anything new or interesting to the teens-in-peril genre. But it did pass an hour and a quarter or so on a cold day fairly agreeably. Not sure that will be much consolation to the makers, but in this life you should be grateful for whatever crumbs you get, that’s what I always say.

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